Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Garden of History: Celebrating Independence Day with "Letters" from Dearest Friends

John Adams thought that Independence Day should be celebrated on July 2, not the traditional date given national holiday status, July 4. July Fourth marked the date on which the delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia signed The Declaration of Independence, the document that contains the famous words about the equality of all human beings Americans are justly proud of.
            But July 2 was the date the delegates from the 13 colonies voted to declare independence from Great Britain, culminating a year-long fractious, often hopeless-seeming debate between those who advocated for the bold and dangerous step of complete separation from Britain and those who held back. The momentous July 2 vote unanimously approved a resolution to declare independence.
            July 2 was justly celebrated Saturday at the Adams National Historical Park by a performance of a new hour-long opera, "My Dearest Friend: The Letters of John and Abigail Adams" by Patricia Leonard. The words of the libretto, as Leonard states in the program notes, come from a correspondence of over a thousand letters maintained by America's first "power couple."
            That dramatic story of what took place on the July 2, 1776 at the Continental Congress is told in the historical musical "1776." Seeing it on stage or in the popular screen version is how most of us come to appreciate the role John Adams played in pushing delegates from the 13 very different colonies in a direction many did not wish to go.
            Because of the role John Adams played in bringing about the American Revolution, his status as a founding father and the second President of the subsequently formed United States of America, we have a National Park in Quincy. (For contrast, consider that there is no National Park presence at all in Plymouth, Mass.,"America's hometown," the site of the first successful English colony in North America, and the birthplace or that peculiarly American holiday Thanksgiving.)
            Many of us may also be acquainted with the influence that Abigail Adams had on her husband, and through him on some crucial Revolutionary period events given her status as a new nation's first feminist spokesman who had the ear of important national leader. Abigail's plea "Remember the ladies" is commonly cited, though the reasons for it are sometimes neglected. Abigail Adams is advocating that women be entitled to fundamental human rights such as the right to own property, that were denied to them under English law. Without these basic legal rights, women were subject to the tyranny or husbands and fathers. "Remember [she writes] all men would be tyrants if they could..."
            As these samples from the letters suggest, the correspondence between these two brilliant, articulate, devoted marriage partners is one of the literary treasures of American history.
            The opera's title is based on the salutation both partners often used in letters to one another, "My Dearest Friend." Given John's involvement in national affairs in a time before rapid transportation, the couple was more often apart than together for a 10-year period in the early part of their marriage.
            Leonard states that the music she wrote for the letters "evokes both patriotism, and the Adams's personal family sacrifices which were necessary for shaping a new America."
            To me Leonard's music sounded American, elevated, and deeply affecting, honoring both the emotions the two express for one another and the high drama of the national birth crises the couple frequently address in their letters.
            The score reminded me of the music of Aaron Copland, though that's the case with almost anything written on a big consciously American theme, and sometimes evoked a feel for the high romantic moments of Richard Rodgers-Americana musical theater ("Carousel," say). It also put me in mind of certain sung moments in the Episcopalian liturgy, which undoubtedly says more about me than the opera.
            The only fault I could find is that the hour-long two-voice opera was not long enough.
            I would suggest adding the time and place of the writing of each of the letters to the program distributed to the audience, which very usefully provided a full libretto.
            In an aria sung by John titled "I Wish Myself at Braintree" -- referring to his Massachusetts home in what is now Quincy -- he complains of his absence from family life, a constant theme, and abruptly announces "I must prepare for a journey to Philadelphia." The date would help make clear that he has been chosen to represent his state at the congress to decide his country's future.
            Abigail replies with a short, meaningful recitative in which she broods: Has any land ever regained its liberty "when once it was invaded, without bloodshed?"
            The words prove a dark foreshadowing of a difficult time for the separated couple, an especially frightening period for Abigail as a huge British fleet enters Boston harbor, the British attack Charlestown, setting the town on fire, and bring on the bloody battle of Bunker Hill. From their Quincy home Abigail and the children can see the fleet, see and smell the smoke from the burning town, and are unable to escape the noise of the thunderous cannon fire of battle.
            "The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing [she writes John]/ that we cannot eat, drink or sleep/ you cannot imagine how we live!"
            Abigail's graphic depiction of the embattled homefront in letters John shared with the delegates at the Continental Congress in far-away Philadelphia causes them to face up to the fact that Britain has already declared war on American militias.
            When the delegates do embrace independence on July 2, John writes that the day will be celebrated by succeeding generations "as the Day of Deliverance/ with pomp and parade/ with shows and games/ bells, bonfires and illuminations/ from one end of this continent to the other/ from this time forward ever more."
            I don't ordinary think of myself as the kind person who gets mushily sentimental and patriotic over Independence Day (regardless of which date we choose to celebrate) but, as "My Dearest Friend" shows me, that is exactly the kind of person I am.